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Palm Beach Post (Florida)
WEST PALM BEACH -- When the Houston Astros clinched their first baseball championship Nov. 1, it was supposed to be a source of pride for the roster of local companies that helped build The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, the team's $152 million spring training complex that opened in February.
Instead, it was met with indifference and resentment because of a festering dispute over millions of dollars in unpaid bills and allegations of shoddy work.
The main fight involves complaints by the teams that share the ballpark, the Astros and Washington Nationals, about problems with payments by the project's general contractors, led by Hunt Construction Group.
Caught in the middle are more than a dozen subcontractors who say they are still waiting to be paid for work performed as long as a year ago -- from the initial land-clearing on the 160-acre site south of 45th Street in West Palm Beach to the concrete, electrical work and plumbing in the stadium and clubhouses to the landscaping all around it.
"It's just a bunch of nonsense," said Rick Mancil, who said his Palm City tractor service company is owed $4 million. "We're just trying to make a living. We got the job done. Now, we have a ball club that just won the World Series, yet they don't want to pay the people who contributed to it. Come on, guys. What's the problem?"
Palm Beach County officials have been aware of the payment concerns since at least March, according to internal emails reviewed by The Palm Beach Post. They've tried to encourage the contractor and teams to speed up payments, many of which come from millions of dollars in public money that helped finance construction bonds.
But the owners of some small companies, whose participation was encouraged by the county to help the local economy, said the delays have forced them to lay off workers and max out personal credit cards to stay afloat while they wait to get paid.
One company owner who asked not to be identified said his firm is going out of business and he is in danger of losing his home. Also hurting are local firms that supplied materials to the various subcontractors.
A Broward County swimming pool company owner got so fed up that he called Astros owner Jim Crane the day after his team won the World Series to demand payment.
"Maybe they'll pay my bills now," said Dean Beckemeyer of Xpert Elevator in Royal Palm Beach, echoing a sarcastic reaction shared by other company owners.
Many companies have been at least partially paid for their work, but they say they're still owed more money.
Rush to open
The complaints, some of which are laid out in more than 10 lawsuits, underscore a range of problems that unfolded at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches as the Astros and Nationals rushed to complete their shared spring training home under a tight construction window.
Work on the site, a former landfill west of Interstate 95, started in November 2015 after the teams secured $113 million in county tourist tax revenue and $50 million from the state to help finance the massive project. The teams are picking up about a third of the total costs.
Just 15 months later, the ballpark opened on time for spring training, but only after work crews scrambled in 20-hour shifts during the final four months. Even then, it still wasn't finished.
And when the teams left camp to open the regular season in April, their local representatives found shoddy work that had to be done over, including improperly installed windows and clubhouse showers that didn't drain properly.
Not long after that, lawsuits started flying like foul balls.
Hunt Construction was named as a defendant in at least seven lawsuits filed by subcontractors and suppliers seeking payment for work. Other suits were filed by supply companies or sub-subcontractors seeking payment from subcontractors.
Five lawsuits were withdrawn a few months after being filed. Four drag on, including a 290-page suit filed June 14 by Davco Electrical of Boynton Beach seeking $7 million in unpaid work from a $10.2 million contract with Hunt.
In August, Hunt filed a lawsuit against A Christian Glass & Mirror Co., accusing the Delray Beach firm of failing to properly perform work under a $1.52 million contract.
Some small companies, trying to avoid a costly fight they say they can't afford, have continued to badger Hunt and team representatives about getting paid. Beckemeyer said he makes weekly visits to the Hunt construction trailers that still sit at the ballpark's Haverhill Road entrance, hoping to get the $200,000 his company is owed.
"Once the trailers are gone, I'm afraid I won't be able to reach anybody," he said.
Teams blame contractors
About five of the 35 smaller companies that worked on the project have complained about the slow payments to the county's Small Business Enterprise office, which sets aside 15 percent of county projects to small firms under county rules.
The Astros and Nationals have placed blame for payment delays on the project's four general contractors, which formed the joint venture Hunt Straticon Messam and Cooper for the project.
"The continued failures of HSMC to provide correct, timely and completed pay applications has plagued this job from the very beginning," Marc Taylor, the program manager hired by the teams, said in a letter to the contractors May 1.
On May 8, representatives for three subs -- Davco Electrical, Mancil's Tractor Service of Palm City and Florida Exotic landscaping in Palm City -- aired their complaints in meetings with County Commissioner Mack Bernard, whose district includes the ballpark.
At a county commission meeting a few days later, Bernard mentioned the payment concerns to county staff, who offered a partial explanation about a process that is slow and often arduous. The process includes a 100-page payment application that is subjected to several layers of scrutiny, a process aimed at ensuring that public money is spent properly by HW Spring Training LLC, the entity formed by the Astros and Nationals.
"It's not a matter of HW not paying. We have documents showing they have dispersed what they've received. It's a matter of Hunt and HW agreeing, or not, upon what is due," Audrey Wolf, the county's facilities development and operations director, told commissioners in May.
The county's contribution -- from tourist tax revenue -- is limited to a $135 million project budget that was approved by the county commission. Anything above that is paid for by the Nationals and Astros, who are already committed to paying about one-third of the project's original budget but are also on the hook for at least $17 million in added costs that have driven the budget up to $152 million.
Some subcontractors, suspicious about why it's taking so long to get paid, said they are left to wonder whether they're being unfairly squeezed as Hunt, which already has blown through its $4 million contingency budget, and the teams look for ways to cut their losses.
"Right now, we're still owed a little over $200,000. The problem is, we've been done for a year now," said Tim Reynolds of South Florida Grading, which installed underground utility lines throughout the complex.
Small companies 'getting killed'
Some companies say the county hasn't done enough to help them, even though they've been complaining for nearly a year.
"As you are aware, the number of inquiries/complaints from subcontractors on payment issues, particularly claims, are mounting," Wolf said in a March 29 email to representatives for Hunt and the teams.
"While the county is not a party to the contract between HW and Hunt, it has many reasons to be concerned about the impact of the unresolved claims on subcontractors."
In early October, Broward County pool company owner John Sammet fired off an angry email to representatives for Hunt and the teams.
"The Ballpark and the city of West Palm Beach were looking for small local contractors to do the work and improve the local economy. I had no idea that meant I would do the work and not get paid for over 8 months," wrote Sammet, whose company, Sammet Pools, installed the Astros' clubhouse spas and the Nationals' outdoor exercise pool.
"For a small contractor you can clearly see how this hurts my company, my employees and my subcontractors. This has clearly put me and my company in an extreme financial hardship. I cannot wait any longer. I feel like nobody cares since the work has already been done."
A month later, the morning after the Astros won the World Series, Sammet called Astros owner Crane's office in Houston and left a message demanding payment of nearly $80,000: "You guys won the world championship but you won't pay your bills!"
In an interview with The Post, Sammet said: "I've tried to be nice as long as I can be. I'm not going to be nice anymore." He thinks Hunt is more to blame than the teams. "But problem is, little guys like me are getting killed. They're not paying us," he said.
Mancil said the county should do more to intervene with Hunt on behalf of smaller companies.
"We let these people come into town, gave them $135 million in taxpayer money, and they can't even take care of the people who work and live here," Mancil said. "It is really terrible the way they're treating everyone."
Giles Kibbe, the Astros' general counsel, said he is disappointed some subcontractors are "putting it on the Astros." He said neither the Astros nor Nationals are withholding payment for work that was done properly.
"Unfortunately, there are disputes over some of the work," Kibbe said, speaking on behalf of HW Spring Training LLC. "This is the county's ballpark, and we have to be careful with the county's money. We have an obligation to pay for work that is done properly. But we also have a responsibility to not pay for work that was done improperly.
"Sadly, it's November and there are still a lot of things that have to be fixed. We're working with Hunt to address those items, and we're optimistic that all of this will be resolved in the next few months."
Spring training starts at the ballpark in early February. The Astros host the Nationals in their first Grapefruit League game Feb. 23.
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Who's owed the cash?
Here are some of the subcontractors and the amounts they say they are owed for work on The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach:
Davco Electrical $6 million
Mancil's Tractor Service $4 million
MIK Construction $500,000
South Florida Grading $200,000
Xpert Elevator $200,000
Sammet Pools $80,000
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